History: Our editors’ recent favorite reads

Chris Schluep on August 18, 2020

History: Our editors’ recent favorite reads

It's always a pleasure to go back and look at the history books we have selected for the Best History Books of the Month. The scope of history that is covered in a typical year runs the gamut. There are stories of triumph and stories of immense struggle. Often those stories are combined into the same book—no story is greater than the story of triumphing over great obstacles. You will find some of our favorite history books of this year below. And you can see all of this month's Best History Books of the Month here.

Race of Aces: WWII's Elite Airmen and the Epic Battle to Become the Master of the Sky by John R Bruning

In 1942, America's deadliest fighter pilot, or "ace of aces"—the legendary Eddie Rickenbacker—offered a bottle of bourbon to the first U.S. fighter pilot to break his record of twenty-six enemy planes shot down. Seizing on the challenge to motivate his men, General George Kenney promoted what they would come to call the "race of aces" as a way of boosting the spirits of his war-weary command. What developed was a wild three-year sprint for fame and glory, and the chance to be called America's greatest fighter pilot.

Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War by Steve Inskeep

John C. Frémont, one of the United States’s leading explorers of the nineteenth century, was relatively unknown in 1842, when he commanded the first of his expeditions to the uncharted West. But in only a few years, he was one of the most acclaimed people of the age—he was not even 40 years old when Americans began naming mountains and towns after him. He had perfect timing, exploring the West just as it captured the nation’s attention. But the most important factor in his fame may have been the person who made it all possible: his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, daughter of a U.S. Senator and as equally ambitious as John. During a time when women were allowed to make few choices for themselves, Jessie—who herself aspired to roles in exploration and politics—threw her skill and passion into promoting her husband.

The World: A Brief Introduction by Richard Haass

The president of the Council on Foreign Relations offers a primer on the biggest challenges the world faces. Whether it's a global pandemic, terrorism, the economy, or political movements, we live in a global community—whether we like it or not. Richard Haass lays it all out for us in this short book intended to explain the world to any and all interested readers. This is a book for experts and laymen alike.

Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country by Sierra Crane Murdoch

Yellow Bird is as a true crime story about the disappearance and murder of an oil-worker named K.C. Clarke. It is also about Lissa Yellow Bird—a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes—who obsessively hunted Clarke's killer for years. But this is also the history of oil drilling on the reservation, the booms and the busts, and the complex legacy of exploitation that shackled the fate of the tribe to that of Big Oil. And finally, Yellow Bird is about addiction and recovery, zooming in on the way Lissa, a meth addict fresh out of prison, channeled the same addictive impulses that landed her in prison into her search for K.C. Clarke.

999: The Unforgettable True Story of the First Women in Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam

On March 25, 1942, nearly a thousand young, unmarried Jewish women boarded a train in Poprad, Slovakia. Filled with a sense of adventure and national pride, they left their parents’ homes wearing their best clothes and confidently waving good-bye. Believing they were going to work in a factory for a few months, they were eager to report for government service. Instead, the young women—many of them teenagers—were sent to Auschwitz. The facts of the first official Jewish transport to Auschwitz are little known today. These were not resistance fighters or prisoners of war. There were no men among them. Sent to almost certain death, the young women were powerless and insignificant not only because they were Jewish—but also because they were female. Drawing on extensive interviews with survivors, and consulting with historians, witnesses, and relatives of those first deportees, Heather Dune Macadam has written an important addition to Holocaust literature and women’s history.

Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell by Tom Clavin

Hot off the heels of last year's Wild Bill, and following up on Dodge City, which featured Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, Tom Clavin brings us Tombstone. This new book features the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, along with a vendetta ride from hell, which captures the imagination, especially when you can't go anywhere yourself.

Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington by Ted Widmer

With Lincoln's inauguration less than two weeks away, he left the midwest for Washington, D.C. He traveled by rail, a physical representation of the strength and expansion of the country, but it was a country on the verge of being pulled apart. There was a conspiracy to assassinate the President-elect in Baltimore, and as we watch him travel closer to the capital, we see a figure rising to meet the moment. Widmer does a great job of capturing the times and the president the times helped to create.

Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy by Alastair Gee

Amazon senior editor Adrian Liang wrote in her Best of the Month review: "Pulling on eyewitness accounts from firefighters, fleeing citizens, police, and medical personnel, Fire in Paradise does not sensationalize. It doesn’t have to. The first sighting of the fire, the chaotic emptying of the town, a boy swimming across a lake to safety with a cat in a cage on his shoulder, a woman giving birth in the middle of a hospital’s evacuation…all these moments, and more, are extraordinary enough. The humanity and bravery exposed in the middle of unexpected catastrophe shine in this narration, even as tragedy destroys families and 85 people perish in the deadliest wildfire in California history."

The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II by Katherine Sharp Landdeck

The Women with Silver Wings is the story of the American women who answered the call of WWII by joining the WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots. While they were not allowed to fly combat missions, these talented pilots could instruct and transport bombers and fighters. With more than 1,000 WASPs, it was a profoundly useful venture; but in 1944, Congress disbanded the organization. Highlighting individual women who served, this book recognizes their contributions and establishes their place in history.

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War--a Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson

The Quiet Americans is a deeply-researched history that reads like a character driven novel. At the end of World War II, the United States began turning its attention to the Soviet Union, and the relatively new CIA became integral to the covert effort to confront the Soviets. Anderson follows four agents whose work was spread across the globe, initially directed at maintaining American ideals, but eventually decaying under the weight of politics, myopia, and overreach. Each of these men bore great costs for the work they did in the CIA. As they were altering the course of world events, the work was altering—sometimes quite severely—the courses of their lives.

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